Quranic Reflection No 673. Āyat 18:42 – Powerful Figures of Speech: The Metonymy

As mentioned in an earlier Quranic reflection, figures of speech are usages of a word
or a phrase that intentionally deviate from the original usage to produce a rhetorical
effect. In Arabic rhetoric, figures of speech are discussed in the discipline known as
‘ilm al-bayān. Books in this discipline discuss the figures of speech used extensively in
Arabic literature such as simile, allegory, and metonymy.  Among the discussions,
scholars expand on the components of each figure of speech, its purpose, and the
different ways in which it can be used. It is interesting to note that Muslim scholars
first began to discuss Arabic rhetoric based on their analysis of the Noble Quran,
centuries before they structured and codified these discussions. For example, the
compiler of Nahj al-Balāghah, Sharīf al-Radī (d. 406 AH), wrote a book entitled Talkhīs
al-Bayān, in which he presents a comprehensive list of all the similes and metaphors in
the Quran.

A metonymy is when one term is substituted for another term that it is closely
associated with. Metonymies rely on the associations between concepts to allow
speakers to convey meaning indirectly, adding depth, imagery, and complexity to
speech. For example, in the sentence “the crown announced new laws” the phrase
“the crown” is a metonymy for the monarchy or the ruling authority. In Arabic, a
metonymy can be translated as kināyah although there are subtle differences in how
these concepts are explained. As opposed to a simile, wherein both things being
compared are present, a metonymy only contains the substituted term. Moreover, a
simile compares two things that are similar in some quality, for example, “her smile
was as bright as the sun.” On the other hand, a metonymy uses a term that is
somehow related to the one intended, for example, “the press” is used metonymically
to refer to journalists and news media. This usage is not based on a similarity, rather
due to the historical context of how journalists used the printing press.

Regardless of how we term or define them, the Noble Quran undoubtedly uses such
figures of speech. Consider the verse above, which recounts the story of a disbeliever
whose crop was destroyed. When the verse says that he wrung his hands it is
indicating that he was in a state of sorrow and grief. While the reader can envision this
disbeliever wringing his hands, this action is still a kināyah or a metonymy. Or for
example, in Sūrat al-Zukhruf, verse 18, the polytheists are quoted as speaking of their
daughters thus:

أَوَمَن يُنَشَّأُ فِي الْحِلْيَةِ وَهُوَ فِي الْخِصَامِ غَيْرُ مُبِينٍ –

‘What! One who is
brought up amid ornaments and is inconspicuous in contests?’
This can also be explained as a metonymy. The main intention in saying this is to
degrade their daughters and say they are of little benefit, as was common in the
barbaric culture of Arabia prior to Islam.  A third and final example of a metonymy is
in the verse Q39:67 which speaks of Allah’s power saying:

وَالسَّمَاوَاتُ مَطْوِيَّاتٌ بِيَمِينِهِ

and the heavens shall be rolled up in His right hand.
Regardless of the discussion about Allah’s hand and the acceptable understanding of
this, the entire verse can be considered as a metonymy that indicates Allah’s strength.
Metonymies are often used to subtly refer to something that one does not want to
explicitly mention. Such metonymies repeatedly appear in the Noble Quran, for
example in two verses (4:43 and 5:6) talking about ghusl, the term ghā’it is used as a
metonymy to politely refer to having gone to the toilet. The word ghā’it refers to a pit
or a depression in the land, since such a place would often be used to relieve oneself.
We pray to Allah to increase our understanding and love of the Noble Quran. We ask
Him in these blessed days of the month of Ramadan for the opportunity to learn the
Arabic language in our life so that we can first-hand benefit from the miraculous
beauty of the Qur’ān and the narrations of the Ahl al-Bayt (peace be upon them).
Sources: Hussein Abdul-Raof, Arabic Rhetoric; Sayyid Muhammad Mansūrī, Balāghat-e